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Audio Books

Audio Books are a fairly recent development in the literary world, brought on by the advent of cheap CD recording and audience demand for alternative formats for when they can't stop to read - such as while driving. Interest in Audio Books has grown rapidly in recent years, and a trip to the local supermarket book stand reveals many popular works in audio as well as printed form.

As an independent author, you should take advantage of every possible means of getting your work out there, and Audio Books are a natural adjunct to your print and CD versions. This topic looks at some of the basics of doing Audio Books, which can also be useful for doing videos.

One thing to keep in mind is that Audio Books are a distinct format, and just like your other formats, should have their own ISBN numbers for marketing and legal reference purposes.

Since the array of recording styles varies so widely, this topic will discuss all potential fascets of the 'reading' process. Added features such as music and sound effects will be covered more in YouTube Videos. You should consider all of these carefully, and decide just how much you want to use.

Production Quality

The first thing you will need to do is decide just how involved this audio production will be. An audio book can be as simple as you reciting the original work line for line, or you can take it to the max with a skilled narrator, multiple performers, music, foley (sound effects), etc - in effect putting on an audio play. This latter can be a huge can of worms, and probably not realistic unless you are prepared to spend a lot of time, effort, and money. Nonetheless, you should keep these thoughts in mind, and strive to include as much as practical in the interest of a quality product.

One key decision you should make right now is how to structure the recording. Your best bet is to break it into 15 to 20 minute chunks - such as chapters - so that your listeners can follow the story during drive time. This also has the advantage that if you botch a part of the recording, you don't lose the entire project.

Equipment

Developing Audio Books requires a modest amount of equipment, depending on how ambitious you are:

  • Software: Modern computers usually have software (such as GarageBand for Mac) suitable for doing Audio Books as part of their software package. If you prefer another brand, there are several low cost and Shareware systems on the net. When choosing one of those systems, be sure it has the features you will need. Specific capabilities should include multiple tracks, drag-and-drop to shift elements around, and the ability to adjust each element for volume, etc.
  • Microphone: There are several brands of microphones available from computer accessory suppliers. Things you need to look out for are how the microphone is powered (some require a separate power supply, some are powered through their USB connection), the ability to record from 'zones' which eliminate some random noise, and the general sound quality. As a rule of thumb, the cheap microphones meant for web-camming don't do all that well. Decent microphones with several sound receiving options can be had for a modest price.
  • Sound Proofing: Most microphones can filter out a certain amount of random noise by reducing their sensitivity by perhaps 10 decibels. This will suffice for most normal cases, but you might want to take advantage of the sound blocking and reverb qualities of a sound booth. This can be as simple as a large cardboard box lined with bath towels to absord the echoes, and with a hole in the side you can speak into.
  • Teleprompter: Recording in real time can be a challenge since you have to keep moving, focus on your speech patterns and pace, and there is the ever-present distraction of being 'on the air'. You really should work from some sort of script. This can be printed pages, but a better method is to set your manuscript on your computer, and scroll it to follow your pace. A good trick is to make the outline very large print so you can follow it easily.

    Formatting For Vocals

    The first thing you should do is write an outline, or if you are doing a text reading, going over your work several times to be sure you know the material well. If you plan a more ambitious project, then a formal script showing sound and music cues is essential. Even your own material will have 'gotcha' points which can trip your pattern up.

    You should seriously look at your material to see if there are things - saidisms, visuals, thoughts - which can be better left out or rewritten to streamline the flow. Literary prose which works well enough on paper can turn clunky and awkward when recited, especially if you work in a casual speech or vernacular style. Keep in mind, too, that just because you wrote and edited it, doesn't mean you will remember it word for word months later. Plan ahead: it's easier to do it right than to do it over.

    To paraphrase Peter Jackson, of 'Lord Of The Rings' fame:

    "If you try to film a book line for line, you'll wind up with a mish-mash. You have to capture the essence of the story and produce that."

    A large part of the text of any print book is descriptives, saidisms, gestures, etc: things necessary to print, but which will bring an audio production to a grinding halt. So what you will have to do is go through and essentially re-author your printed work in an audio book format which can be recorded. This doesn't have to follow any exact formula as long as what you put down is clear and easy to recite on the fly. A typical stript might look like this:

     NARRATOR: "In the mountain cabin:"
     AUDI: "Oh, Porche!"  SOUND: birds chirping
     PORCHE: "Oh, Audi!"  MUSIC: 'Love In Bloom'
     
     NARRATOR: "Meanwhile, at the secret moon base:"
     MAD SCIENTIST: "Muwahahahaha!"  SOUND: Marching boots
       MUSIC: 'Die Panzerleib'

    (Hopefully your writing is somewhat better than this!)

    You will want to open with a title recording which includes the story title, author, and copyright information, and perhaps a brief preview (one or two sentences) of what the story is about. You should also open each chapter with the title and, if appropriate, which character is the narrator. This is especially true in works with multiple POVs.

    Remember to keep each recording session brief - no more than a page or two - so that if you botch it, you don't lose much. Be careful to use the same verbal pace and volume for each scene to insure continuity. After you complete a scene, take a moment to go over it to be sure you have a good copy. This will also refresh you for opening the next scene.

    In doing the verbal track, make a special effort to speak clearly and at a moderate pace. Human speech normally rattles along pretty fast, and it's easy to lose the thread of the message and wind up tripping over your own tongue. If you look at most movies, you will notice the actors speak deliberately and clearly - moreso than they would in everyday life. It is important to monitor this pace so that you don't slide in and out of synch, throwing your characters off balance and blurring your reading.

    Doing multi-character dialogue can be tricky, but you should at least make an effort at it. Start by fixing each character firmly in your mind so that you know what they sound like. A strong character, for example, will speak forcefully, while a weaker character will be more hesitant. Age and gender roles will require concentraction. These skills will take a bit of practice to develop, but since you wrote the characters, it shouldn't be that hard to concrete them in your mind.

    Emotional context is another area where you will have to assume many roles. Depending on the mood of the material, the tempo, force, and expression will shift. These effects should already be written into your manuscript, so transferring them will be a matter of simple translation. Watch out in particular for cases where one character is brow-beating another, who wilts under the barrage in turn. The interaction of the two temperaments will call for some verbal skill. Also keep alert for cases where a character abruptly changes mood, as in the instance of the brow-beaten individual who suddenly loses his temper and lashes back. As with voices, you will have to watch your mood pace to keep it consistent to the events and to the characters' interaction.

    One useful trick is to project dialogue at a higher volume than the background narration. This will deemphasize the narrative, placing more focus on the character interactions. Be careful, however, to keep the volume shifts minor.

    Finally, go over each finished take with a critical ear, listening for mumbled words, incorrect reading, bad timing, volume or pace issues, etc. When you find these, don't hesitate to do them over: the extra effort will be minimal, everything improves with practice, and you can never make the final product too good.

    Working With An Ensemble Cast

    Assuming you are masochistic enough to want to do an entire audio play with all the bells and whistles, then the challenge multiplies rapidly. However, while an ensemble cast play can be daunting, the potential for real quality is something which deserves serious consideration. In the real world, putting an ensemble together may be more effort than is realistic, but if a group of authors wish to organize to do advanced plays, perhaps it is something to look into. It would certainly make the costs a lot easier to support, and if you have people well versed in Audio/Video production, the workload can improve dramatically. This is not something to undertake on a whim, but you might keep it in mind.

    In doing ensemble projects, one vital step is to set out exactly who does what: who is the Director, who the Audio/Video technician, who does the Editing, etc. Remember the old truism that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Set out your lines of authority and responsibility, and stick to them. Presumably, each author would be the Producer/Director of their own projects, and would be a 'good trouper' helping others on their works.

    Perhaps your biggest problem is getting your ensemble together to hold recording sessions. Real-world scheduling conflicts will be a chronic headache which applies not only to on-the-air time, but to rehearsal time as well. There will always be one (or more) of your ensemble who just haven't studied the script, or who will freeze up when the mike is live. Patience will be a major virtue, as will setting time aside for rehearsals.

    Another issue is that you will need more room to work in, and thus a cardboard box sound booth (as discussed earlier) won't do. Again, it is probably not realistic to build a sound stage in your home, so you must be prepared to lose a fair number of takes to planes flying overhead and fire trucks racing down the street. As such, doing an audio play will take weeks.

    In view of time constraints and the number of takes you will inevitably lose, it is best to break your recording sessions down into brief pieces, perhaps as brief as a single scene or a couple of pages. Doing this will limit your losses from failed takes, and the good takes can be blended together in the software later.

    Foley Effects

    Foley - sound effects - add depth to a narrated work, even if you only use them sparingly in an otherwise basic reading format. Since this is an advanced process, and not strictly needed to do basic Audio Books, we will go into this in more detail in YouTube Videos.

    Music

    As with Foley, background music is an advanced form which requires a fair amount of time, equipment, and effort to incorporate into Audio Books. This is also covered in detail in YouTube Videos.

    Post Production

    Once you have your recording finished, the last step is to burn it to CDs. One weakness of Audio Books is that the average CD is only good for about an hour of playing time, and since reading the average novel will take several hours, you will wind up with multiple CDs. This is not as bad as it sounds, since CDs are cheap, but you will have to take that into account in your production planning. You will also need to use CD cases designed to hold multiple CDs, which can be a bit more expensive than the basic single CD package.

    A critical thing to look out for when prepping your CD burn is to mark your files so that they are separated into proper chapter sequence, but can be selected one after another by the CD player for continuous play. This is handled in various ways on the various audio/video software, so you should familiarize yourself with the features of the system you use before starting production. In particular, be alert for systems where continuous play and separate chapters have to be set manually each time you burn a CD.

    Above all, once you have burnt your first set of CDs, play them through in their entirety to be certain you have a good recording, and the channel selection works properly. You don't want to find out about problems later from customer complaints after you burned 50 sets.

    When setting up your labels, as related in Books On CDs, you will need to include a subtitle on each, such as "Chapters 1 - 6". These should be clear and bold so they are easy to read while the listener is easily distracted by traffic.


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